Fifteen years after the federal government created a Rural Secretariat within Agriculture Canada to advocate for rural issues within government and to support rural research, the Conservatives have dismantled it.
Rural advocates, including the Canadian Federation of Municipalities, worry that the loss of a rural advocacy focal point inside Ottawa will be a setback for attention to rural issues that range from infrastructure to promises of expanded broadband coverage in rural areas.
The FCM adopted an emergency resolution on the issue recently, lauding the Rural Secretariat for its work and calling on the government to work with the federation to develop “a practical, accountable policy framework for rural Canada.”
David Marit, chair of the FCM rural caucus and president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, said the federal decision is a blow.
“I think it did important work and gave us a contact,” he said. “A key issue is that the political system is moving toward more urban domination, so in rural Canada we are concerned about what happens now.”
The federal decision to dismantle it came without announcement or fanfare.
As part of sharp cuts at Agriculture Canada in May, all 13 remaining employees of the secretariat were given notices. Little more than a year ago, it had 92 employees and a budget of more than $20 million.
In response to a question about the decision, Agriculture Canada provided a statement arguing that the Conservative government will continue supporting rural Canada and applying a “rural lens” to policy development.
It suggested the secretariat had done its work, and rural communities now can create their own opportunities.
“The Rural Secretariat has laid the groundwork for communities to more effectively interact and take advantage of opportunities on their own,” it said.
Canadian Federation of Agriculture president Ron Bonnett said there never was a notice from Agriculture Canada to rural advocates like CFA that the secretariat would be dismantled.
He said it appears to be part of a broader Conservative focus on reducing the reach of government, but program and policy needs for rural Canada continue to exist.
“They expect others to pick up the slack, but who?”